Here's the Difference Between SEO and SEM

Posted by Nikki Wardle on Jul 9, 2021 11:43:00 AM

We updated this popular post from 2013 to ensure it's up-to-date.

Something that we run into quite often is a lack of understanding between the basic principles of Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and Search Engine Optimization (SEO). These are two very important terms in the world of Digital Marketing and can mean a lot of new traffic for a business. Not to get all philosophical on the situation, but we can confidently postulate that all SEO is SEM, but not all SEM is necessarily SEO.

A better way to think about it is to think of SEM as the CEO or owner of a company. That company employs SEO, Pay-Per-Click Advertising, Social Media Marketings, Content Marketing and Website Design. Each of the employees work together, and they all work for SEM.

Here we'll break down SEO and SEM for you so that you can better understand and distinguish the difference.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Search Engine Optimization is the process of gearing your website toward achieving better results on Google through organic search. This means that you’re not paying for results. You’re simply letting the search engine bots do their thing by reading and ranking the information on your site, placing you on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) where they see fit.

The different constituents of SEO are numerous but the basic idea is to have great content, a good amount of quality backlinks, and on-site optimization that search engine bots love. The better your content and the more authoritative you are in Google’s eyes, the better your site’s chances are to achieve a high ranking in organic search results.

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Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

As stated earlier, SEO is a component of SEM, but there are other factors that comprise a company’s SEM strategy. The basic premise behind SEM is that its sole purpose is to gain a higher visibility and traffic on search engines, whether this is via organic or paid traffic.

That’s where Pay-Per-Click advertising comes into play as it allows companies with the right budget to get premier ad placement for certain keywords. Google’s version of Pay-Per-Click advertising comes in the form of its Ads platform (formally known as Adwords), which has pretty much set the standard for SEM everywhere.

How do they do it? Google has the luxury of housing massive amounts of data that all contribute to how much a company will need to bid to get the best chance at a top spot for one of their ads. Obviously, the top spot on the first page for a certain keyword is going to pretty pricey, and the big corporate companies get into the mix. There are also more specific keywords that can be targeted geographically that the little fish also get a chance to get a piece of.

So what’s the takeaway? SEO is unpaid and uses information found on your website. SEM, on the other hand, takes both SEO and paid search results into account.


Nikki Wardle

Written by Nikki Wardle

Nikki has a degree in Marketing from Boise State University and worked as an Inbound Marketing Specialist at Tribute Media from 2014 to 2019. She's a Google Whiz and dog lover, now serving as a marketing director for a local veterinary clinic.

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